Anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.
1 John 4.20-21
When the Pharisees challenge Jesus to name the greatest law of all, without pause He quotes Deuteronomy 6.5: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Before they process that, however, He augments it with a second quote: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19.18) Then He ties them together: “There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12.31) Because Jesus initially responds with Deuteronomy, identifying it as “the first and great commandment,” many assume it ranks above Leviticus. But He’s not singling out either law as greater than the other or all the rest, as the Pharisees hope He’ll do. He’s encompassing the Law, placing love of God at one end and love of others opposite it. In Matthew’s version (22.36-40), Jesus ends His reply, saying, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Once again, He confounds the Pharisees’ scheme with an irrefutable answer they never expected. “No one law is greater than another,” is what He’s saying. “Obey these two and you obey them all.” (Oh, those Pharisees—such smart boys, such foolish ideas—they never learn!)
Jesus connects Deuteronomy and Leviticus because loving God and loving our neighbors go hand-in-hand; one without the other is incomplete. So centrally does this doctrine define our faith that John’s first epistle, written as pastoral guidance for the entire Church, is by and large a treatise on Christ’s response. John views love as the litmus that separates believers from poseurs. When someone professes to love God, he urges us to note how caringly he/she treats others, and vice-versa. He writes, “This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands.” (1 John 5.2) Several verses earlier, as chapter 4 ends, John says, “Anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, Whom he has not seen.” (4.20) He hits this note so regularly there’s no room to second-guess. For John, it’s impossible to follow Jesus without loving God and others. Failure to love both fails the test.
Don’t Believe a Word
How adamant is John about this? Here’s the first half of verse 20: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar.” Not mistaken or confused or exaggerating—he’s lying. The forceful tone jars the reader. It seems out of character for John, whom we presume is the “disciple Jesus loved” in his Gospel, and it slices against the grain of the topic. (Calling people liars sure doesn’t sound loving.) Yet I’m convinced John intends to shock, as his letter addresses an urgent crisis troubling numerous congregations.
At this point, the Church hasn’t quite ironed out its theology. It’s without a ratified creed and accepted canon. The hierarchy hasn’t solidified; the apostles govern, but middle management is shaky, allowing toxic ideas to seep into the doctrine. Many, oddly enough, carry over from traditions Jesus opposed, including a faction of converted Pharisees! (Acts 15.5) They advocate heresies with convincing, yet unbalanced use of Scripture and enforce compliance with threats of damnation. John does not want naïve believers entangling in legal debates or subscribing to false doctrine out of fear. He writes, “Perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” (4.18) With that established, the rest falls in line. Those making you afraid don’t love you. If they don’t love you, they can’t love God. Ergo, those leveraging fear against you while claiming to love God are liars. That’s all the proof you need, John says. Don’t believe a word they say.
More to the Message
If we only read John’s expansion on Christ’s commandments to love as a searing indictment of abusive teachers, we miss the larger purpose behind his letter. There’s more to the message—and it applies directly to us. Trying to love God as Jesus taught yet withholding love from our neighbors is folly. Many believe we can squeak past this by not actively hating anyone. Still, we harbor resentments and accumulate unforgiven debts. Until we’re rid of them, we’re not free to love God totally and completely. Here’s Leviticus 19.18 in full: “’Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.’” Measuring love (to the point of indifference) for others by what they deserve results in giving God less than He deserves. Failing the love litmus test on one side automatically means failing on the other.
“We love because he first loved us,” 1 John 4.19 reads, with both objects implied. We love God and others because He first loved us. “This is how we know what love is,” John explains. “Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” (1 John 3.16) In his Gospel, he quotes Jesus: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” (John 15.12) No person ever existed with more right to avenge our wrongs, to resent, and to withhold love we don’t deserve. Yet Jesus loved us in spite of ourselves in advance. He didn’t hold out for an apology. He didn’t ask for closure. He didn’t need to get over His pain and suffering. His love was there, waiting for us. How can we not love Him with all our heart, soul, and strength? And how can remotely pretend we love Him, sight unseen, and refuse to love those right before our eyes?
Love's litmus test. Love for God tests positive in love for others; love for others tests positive in love for God. Presence of one indicates the other. Absence of either disproves both.
(Next: Truth That Lasts)